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Why Not Have a Hearing on Civilian Drone Casualties?

Yesterday, I suggested that Mike Rogers and Dutch Ruppersberger’s certainty that public accounts of drone casualties are overstated may say more about our failed intelligence oversight than it does about the number of civilians who have died in our drone strikes.

Later yesterday, Steven Aftergood posted a must read reflection on how our intelligence oversight has backed off public accountability. I’ll have more to say about Aftergood’s post, but for the moment I wanted to look at a measure of public accountability he uses: the number of public oversight hearings, particularly those with outside experts.

Over the past decade, however, the Committee’s priorities appear to have changed, to the detriment of public accountability.  In fact, despite the Committee’s assurance in its annual reports, public disclosure even of the Committee’s own oversight activities has decreased.

In 2012, the Committee held only one public hearing, despite the prevalence of intelligence-related public controversies.  That is the smallest number of public hearings the Committee has held in at least 25 years and possibly ever.  A non-governmental witness has not been invited to testify at an open Committee hearing since 2007.

Breaking! Under Dianne Feinstein’s leadership, the Senate Intelligence Committee has had its fewest public hearings in at least 25 years!

Aftergood’s point, though, suggests one remedy for the problem with Mike Rogers’ boasting (or more lucrative assurances from DiFi that her oversight is all we need on drone strikes).

Why not have a public hearing at which the major contributors to the discussion of drone casualties testify in the same place?

The Intelligence Committees could invite both The Bureau for Investigative Journalism and the AP to explain how they conducted independent assessments of civilian casualties and what those assessments showed. They could invite Peter Bergen to explain his dubious numbers publicly (at one point, after all, Bergen actually knew as much about Osama bin Laden as the people hunting him in secret).  They could invite Pepperdine professor Gregory Neal–who has a paper saying that when the government uses its collateral damage estimation process, it does a remarkably good job at keeping collateral damage low, but admits that “due to the realities of combat operations, the process cannot always be followed.” Hell, they could even invite John Brennan to lie publicly about civilian casualties, as he has done in the past. Maybe, too, Brennan can explain how all militant age men are treated and counted, by default, as militants.

The point is there is a partial remedy to the grave problems with the cognitive challenges overseers like Mike Rogers and Dianne Feinstein face. One of those is to publicly accept the testimony of those who have different investments than the intelligence community.

Right now, continuing to rest the drone program’s legitimacy on repeated public calls to “trust me” actually undermines its legitimacy.

Sadly, resting our national security policy on repeated “trust mes” appears to be what Rogers and Feinstein like.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

On the Questions of Drones, First Responders and Collective Punishment in Pakistan

Yesterday evening, I took the ill-advised step of jumping into an already ongoing Twitter discussion with Professor Christine Fair on the topic of drones in Pakistan. My jumping in was ill-advised on two fronts: I had not seen the comments to which Fair was responding, but, more importantly, I can’t come close to the experience, language skills and overall knowledge Fair brings to the issues of South Asia.

My first entry into the discussion was to respond to a statement from Fair in which she said that she supports drones and does not believe their use to be collective punishment. I asked whether the use of drones to attack first responders and mourners in Pakistan qualified as collective punishment and in a follow-up provided a link to the work by Chris Woods and Christina Lamb at The Bureau of Investigative Journalism where they document such attacks. Fair’s response was to point out that Woods and Lamb have not been to FATA and that the Pakistani press is heavily manipulated. She referred me to a piece she wrote for Monkey Cage for elaboration on the points she was making.

It appears that this is the post Fair was asking that I read. Before diving into it, I should point out that it is about a year old and was written primarily in response to earlier work by Woods and Lamb. For fairness, I should also point out that from the context of other tweets later in the evening, Fair was a passenger in a car during our conversation and so would have been working with fewer resources at hand than if at home and using a computer.

With that as prologue, here is Fair’s dissection of the reliance on press reports for analysis of drone attacks in Pakistan’s tribal areas (BIJ is The Bureau of Investigative Journalism and NAF is the New America Foundation, where Peter Bergen and others have produced another drone strike database):

Their methodologies and data are fundamental weaknesses, although neither seem aware of this. Both NAF and BIJ claim that they have assembled a database which covers each individual strike in Pakistan in detail.  Unfortunately, both efforts fundamentally rely upon Pakistani press reports of drone attacks. Both claim that they use non-Pakistani media reports as well. For example the BIJ explains in their methodology discussion that the “…the most comprehensive information on casualties lies in the thousands of press reports of drone strikes filed by reputable national and international media since 2004. Most reports are filed within a day or two of an attack. Sometimes relevant reports can be filed weeks – even years – after the initial strike. We identify our sources at all times, and provide a direct link to the material where possible.”

/snip/

While these methodologies at first blush appear robust, they don’t account for a simple fact that non-Pakistani reports are all drawing from the same sources: Pakistani media accunts [sic]. How can they not when journalists, especially foreign journalists, cannot enter Pakistan’s tribal areas?  Unfortunately, Pakistani media reports are not likely to be accurate in any measure and subject to manipulation and outright planting of accounts by the ISI (Pakistan’s intelligence agency) and the Pakistani Taliban and affiliated militant outfits.

The more recent report from Woods and Lamb (in which the first responder accusations are made), however, appears to have taken steps to address at least a portion of the shortcomings Fair has pointed out. Since it is not safe for foreign journalists to enter the tribal areas, Woods and Lamb engaged a group of local researchers to carry out interviews on their behalf: Read more

Many years ago, Jim got a BA in Radiation Biophysics from the University of Kansas. He then got a PhD in Molecular Biology from UCLA and did postdoctoral research in yeast genetics at UC Berkeley and mouse retroviruses at Stanford. He joined biosys in Palo Alto, producing insect parasitic nematodes for pest control. In the early 1990’s, he moved to Gainesville, FL and founded a company that eventually became Entomos. He left the firm as it reorganized into Pasteuria Biosciences and chose not to found a new firm due a clash of values with venture capital investors, who generally lack all values. Upon leaving, he chose to be a stay at home dad, gentleman farmer, cook and horse wrangler. He discovered the online world through commenting at Glenn Greenwald’s blog in the Salon days and was involved in the briefly successful Chris Dodd move to block the bill to renew FISA. He then went on to blog at Firedoglake and served a brief stint as evening editor there. When the Emptywheel blog moved out of Firedoglake back to standalone status, Jim tagged along and blogged on anthrax, viruses, John Galt, Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is now a mostly lapsed blogger looking for a work-around to the depressing realization that pointing out the details of government malfeasance and elite immunity has approximately zero effect.

Peter Bergen’s Bumper Sticker

Yesterday, just two days after the unofficial start of the General Election, Joe Biden officially rolled out the slogan he had already warned would be his refrain for the entire campaign season:

If you’re looking for a bumper sticker to sum up how President Obama has handled what we inherited, it’s pretty simple: Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive.

Also yesterday, Time Magazine rolled out a Peter Bergen article, The Last Days of Osama Bin Laden (which is still behind the paywall), accompanied not just by a bunch of other piggy-backed articles, but the letter above, Leon Panetta’s record of National Security Advisor Tom Donilon’s call telling him the operation against OBL was a go.

I guess we’re supposed to assume the timing of the two events is entirely coincidental.

The other event that transpired yesterday–Judge James Boasberg’s order ruling the CIA had properly withheld 52 photos taken during the raid on OBL’s compound under FOIA exemption 1 (properly classified information)–probably was just a coincidence.

But it does remind us that the photos–that is, records of the same covert operation as Leon Panetta’s note recorded–were immediately stamped “Top Secret,” considered derivatively classified, and subsequently formally classified and withheld from FOIA.

And yet, here Panetta’s note is, somehow having evaded the classification stamps. That, in spite of the fact that it records the normally religiously guarded Presidential communications, not to mention details of how CIA and JSOC work together on covert ops, the time it was officially okayed, that McRaven was informed first even though CIA was ostensibly in charge of the op. All of it stuff that, had the op blown up in Obama’s face, would be as carefully guarded as those pictures of OBL’s funeral.

In my mind, this whole festival of information asymmetry targeted at voters is capped off by the byline involved: Peter Bergen.

When I read about the imprisonment of journalists like Abdulelah Haider Shaye, or the wiretapping of Lawrence Wright and Christiane Amanpour, I think back to Bergen, who in the days after 9/11 was an important, reliable source who knew more about al Qaeda than many of the people taxpayers were paying to keep us safe. I’ve always thought, as our government targets journalists covering Islamic extremists, we’re handcuffing the next Peter Bergen, that journalist who is right now collecting the information our intelligence community is neglecting.That Peter Bergen is likely to be imprisoned, like Shaye, for talking directly to a terrorist.

And what has Bergen become, along the way? The outlet for officially leaked information–one more tool in the President’s toolbox of information asymmetry.

I don’t blame the Obama Administration for running on Joe Biden’s pithy slogan. But I do blame it for corrupting information in this way, both the system of classification that should be free from politics, and the space it accorded journalists to do their job when the government wasn’t.

Update: See this for details of how Brian Williams will film Obama and friends re-enacting last year’s Sit Room drama as they killed OBL.

Update: One of the things Judicial Watch complained about in their OBL suit is that the photos were probably classified only after the government received their FOIA on May 2 (to DOD) and May 4 (to CIA). CIA Information Review Officer Elizabeth Anne Culver explained that the CIA always considered the photos classified.

Contrary to Plaintiff’s suggestion, after their creation these extraordinarily sensitive images were always considered to be classified by the CIA and were consistently maintained in a manner appropriate for their classification level.

So wouldn’t Panetta’s note be considered derivatively classified, just like the photos? If so, why doesn’t have declassification markings now?

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.